Have you ever had a work situation where someone’s rank changed substantially, or someone messed up? How did those involved handle that situation? Did everyone impacted use their status in a way that contributed to the good of the company? Or did some people act badly—say and do mean things. Relationships and productivity can suffer when power dynamics are in flux or mistakes are made.
There is a dramatic example of the negative impact of shifting rank in a famous movie you have probably seen, A Star Is Born. Spoiler alert: if you have not seen the movie, or any of the other versions, this article will reveal a key part of the storyline.
Jack (Bradley Cooper) and Ally (Lady Gaga) have a change in rank that happens very fast. He was the rockstar who gave her the chance to sing in front of huge crowds. Then she quickly rose to superstardom, with the help of her powerful agent Rez. And Rez is clearly not fond of Jack. Ally suggests, at one point, that they could sing duets together on tour. Rez says there is “no way” Jack could sing with her, and he repeated it twice.
Though initially Jack was very happy for Ally, there is no doubt that her mega-success was hard on him. There are several scenes that prove it. One is where he pushes a cream cheese bagel into her face and another when he calls her ugly while she’s in the bathtub. And his drinking gets worse.
At one point Ally wins a Grammy award. At the ceremony Jack gets totally drunk, falls down on stage and urinates on himself on national TV. This sends him into treatment. After his treatment for addiction Rez has a disturbing “We’re not exactly friends here” conversation about that situation with Jack, that seems to push him over the edge into total despair. You can watch it here: (just the 1st 45 seconds is enough). This conversation is a classic misuse of rank. And Rez appears to be—like most people who are misusing their status— totally unconscious of the negative impact of his behavior. He is numb to what is happening inside of Jack. And Jack looks horrible the whole conversation!
In this conversation with Jack, Rez sits above him and faces slightly away from him. He really nails Jack for his bad behavior with his words, use of profanity and parental tone. There is not one hint of empathy or understanding. He is not even close to getting into Jack’s shoes. You can see the light and hope draining from Jack as Rez berates him, “….you almost single handedly derailed her whole career, she’s never going to say this to you, she loves you too much… just by staying married to you she looks like a jerk. Let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time before that gets pushed aside before the real thing…and when that happens, I don’t want her anyway near you.”
Ally talks with Jack, towards the end, about canceling her trip to Europe. He looks completely dejected. He says “Great.” but you could tell by his tone of voice that he didn’t mean it and she didn’t notice or question him. She says, “See you soon OK?” and he didn’t say anything. She missed his silence and his deeply negative mood. She was unconscious partly due to her newly found rockstar rank.
After these conversations we can imagine Jack thinking about what Rez said and his potential impact on Ally. He cannot bear the thought that he is ruining her career, or that he must stay away from her forever. He is silenced by the conversations. Later that day, while Ally is away performing, Jack starts to drink, and then later on takes his own life.
I believe that the conversation with Rez was one of the reasons Jack chose to take his own life by suicide.
If you have higher rank than other workers, make sure that you pay attention to how your words and tone of voice impacts them when having those uncomfortable conversations. Make sure to communicate empathy, even as you hold them accountable.
If you want a great culture, and a high level of trust, then you want people feeling that they are respected and appreciated. Even when they mess up. Especially when they mess up.
And you may be unaware of your non-verbal signals, especially if you have high rank. It can be easy to lose awareness of the needs and feelings of others who have lower rank. It is easy to get drunk on your rank, and “pee” on others, or yourself.
Emerging and experienced managers will likely need training and coaching to be consistently skillful in these moments.
If you want to grow future “stars” you may have to come down to earth and take a humbling look at yourself. If you want your workers to be as productive as possible, make sure all your managers know how to use their rank skillfully, especially when others mess up.